when the words won’t come

dsc_0146

It has been a pretty long while since I have written here.

Twenty months into this journey of motherhood, there is so much I want to write about. Little stories from our daily life. Reflections on this new (and still at times overwhelming) adventure that is motherhood. My highs and lows as I find my creativity returning, little by little.

And yet. Every time I come back to this place, I open the page in the expectation that the words will appear…then they don’t. I had always taken it for granted that word craft was like breathing for me, something I didn’t really think about and that didn’t require much effort. Like knitting. Then I became a mama. And both these parts of my life suddenly became incredibly arduous. Which has been such a shock. I had anticipated motherhood would bring about big changes in my life. But I just could not have imagined that I would struggle so profoundly to make it to the end of a row. Nor to find the words.

Just as knitting has been a common thread stretching down the years from childhood to adulthood, so too my previous life was bound inexorably to language. I worked for a number of years as a freelance translator and peripatetic language teacher, and before that I spent six years as an undergraduate unravelling the mysteries of the French language. So to find myself so tongue tied has been hard to say the least.

It would be so easy to give up on this little space. To decide that instead of leaving it here lingering and open to change, I will just close the shutters & lock the door. To make a clean break of it. But that would be a bit like me deciding this time last year to gather up my yarns & knitting paraphernalia and donate them to the local charity shop because I was struggling to pick up my needles. And that would have been a real shame. So instead, I shall just leave a little window ajar, in the hope that if I keep looking for the words and making space for them, they will eventually return to me.

If I’m daring to hit the publish button tonight, it’s because I felt so heartened to read Ruth’s words a few days ago. Hers is a blog that I come back to time and time again, and to read her own thoughts on her own journal keeping made me feel so encouraged. Whilst I find the excitement & buzz of other online gathering spaces to be a source of stimulation & inspiration, I must admit that I am particularly fond of those smaller, quieter and more meaningful places of connection and sharing that can still be found in blogs. Over there it often feels like being at a very crowded, very noisy party, albeit one filled with very kind & lovely folk. There is an energy and a creativity to be found there in the thronging crowd, but sometimes I can find it all a little overwhelming and exhausting. However visiting a favourite blog feels more like being invited round a dear friend’s house for a cup or tea and a knit. A moment to share some meaningful conversations about life & knitting whilst we quietly work on our respective projects. Ruth’s blog is just one such lovely place, here are some other friends & favourites I continue to visit.

So whilst I cannot tell you when I shall next drop by here, nor where or how I intend to take this journal, consider it a renewal of my intention to keep that little window open. And to keep showing up for the words.

last & first

dsc_0171
The mohair bear was my last project of the old year…and the hat is my first thing cast on (for me!) this new one. After a few evenings of swatching trying out different needle sizes and stitch patterns, l’ve settled on casting on 72 stitches on size 4.5mm needles, a brim in 2×2 rib followed by some colour work inspired by this project. I’m hoping it will knit up fairly quickly into a cozy beanie because we’ve started the year with a real cold snap and amazingly and after knitting up so many hats for my menfolk recently, I don’t seem to have anything adequate to keep my own head warm! I’m really excited to see how the colour work turns out and think it will be the perfect way to use up the leftover balls of yarn from one of my favourite hand spun projects of 2016.

As for my making, I have some intentions for the coming year, which I’ll talk more about in a future post. For now, it is enough to go slowly & gently into this new year. Wishing you a very happy 2017 and hope you are warm and cozy wherever you are!

ps: I’d love to hear about your last & first projects, whether knitting, spinning, sewing or otherwise, if you’d like to share below!

looking back

hills

As we prepare to let the old year passes, I take to the hills. Not literally, not physically. But in my mind’s eye.

Drifting off into that place between waking and dreaming, there is no real time to mull over 2016 before I surrender to sleep. No need really either. Sleep is beckoning and I’ve learnt enough now to welcome it with open arms when I can.

But it’s good to take a cursory glance back across my shoulder, back down the mountain of the year. For it is only now that I can see it has all been worth it, that we did the right thing to keep going, to keep on hoping and not give up when the going got tough. If 2015 was the year that I became a mama, this is the year that’s truly starting to make me one. These past twelve months dedicated to being the mama of a little boy have been amongst the toughest I have ever known. Physically, emotionally and mentally. But standing here now at the closing of the year, I see that 2016 has truly been the most beautiful, personally fulfilling year ever. I’m excited to see what 2017 has to offer me, us, without resolutions but with an open heart and the courage of a mama of a busy toddler!

distractions

bear-ibear iiI had a vague notion that I would try to finish off all my current knitting projects for the end of the year. Although I’ve made great headway these past weeks, recently distractions have been lining up to keep me away from my needles. Not that I mind. Not yet. Freezing cold mornings, blue skies and sunshine and some quarters of German mohair found deep within my stash are bringing me back to my roots as a maker and being transformed into a series of sweet little bears.

I really should be baby knitting. But it’s so lovely to sit beside the glow of the fire in the evening and busy myself with these little bears in between.

Is anything keeping you from your knitting needles at the moment?

back to spinning, baby by my side

dsc_0511

Spinning was difficult for me during my pregnancy. At the very start, the odour of fleece  (whether raw or scoured) turned my stomach. We had to keep all my wool tidied away in the spare bedroom until well into the second trimester. By the time the nausea had subsided, I had a wonderfully round belly in it’s place. And so sitting for long periods of time bent over the wheel were rather uncomfortable. Besides, I had plenty of baby knitting to keep my fingers (and mind) busy.

dsc_0515

Unsurprisingly, that first summer of motherhood also kept me very well occupied. Not only was there a whole new person in the world to get to know and to look after, but I also had to get to know myself in my new role. And be sure to take extra good care of my own health; pacing myself through the days and nights, resting and sleeping whenever I could, and trying to get plenty of fresh air in between. All of which meant there was no spare time or energy for knitting, let alone spinning.

dsc_0526

I remember this time last year, just how keenly I was missing the comforting feel of fibre running through my fingers. Although we were starting to feel a little more settled, somehow the thought of making things seemed incredibly frivolous, even selfish. But a phone conversation with my own ma one chilly autumn morning nudged me back to the possibility of making. She recounted how when she was in the throes of early motherhood with my big brother (forty years before…), she had still somehow managed to find some time for dressmaking. In those quiet hours spent with her sewing machine once he was tucked up in bed, she had found both a renewed passion for sewing but also a deeper satisfaction in everything she made, because she had been forced to slow down and savour every moment spent working through the construction of a garment.

dsc_0532I felt inspired by our conversation and so when some raw fleece came my way, I tentatively set about getting back to the wheel. Encouraged by this wonderful initiative, I set about spinning up a little sample skein of yarn from a raw fleece we went and collected directly from the farm on shearing day. It took me the best part of a month to spin up that little 50g skein of yarn and the experience left me feeling a little bit ambivalent. It had been so much fun to get my hand cards out again and follow the fibre through from greasy fleece to finished yarn.

dsc_0543

But having to spin in the evenings when the baby was in bed was hard for me as I was often very tired by that time of day. And I also quickly realised that having greasy fingers was not the most practical thing for me when I could be called in to settle the baby back to sleep at any time. This project really brought it home to me how this way of working with wool is physically challenging, time-consuming and above all messy.

dsc_0552

I found myself feeling really discouraged, almost the point of being put off spinning for good. That is, until I saw this photo.  Seeing this mama spinning at her wheel with her baby cozily wrapped on her chest changed my perception of what was possible. Perhaps it would be possible to spin again, I just needed to be a little more creative in how I did it. Rather than waiting for the baby to be tucked up in bed for the night, perhaps I could spin a little at those times of day when I had a little bit more energy. That would mean spinning with baby by my side, or even on my chest like that mama. Back then, we were carrying him around most of the day in the sling (we didn’t and still don’t have a pushchair, mainly because it’s not the most practical of things when you live in the mountains). So why could I not spin with him beside me?

dsc_0555I was not only inspired by how she was spinning, but also what she was spinning with. I will always be the kind of spinner who deep down loves to work from raw fleece to finished yarn. But I realised in that moment if I am to ever get any spinning done, perhaps I could also used pre-prepared fibre rather than sourcing, scouring & carding my own. That was one of the first lessons of making & mothering, being willing to tweak the way I work with wool. And being willing to cut myself a little slack too.

dsc_0221 dsc_0222Since then, I’ve completed three quite substantial spinning projects (as well as a number of little mini-projects here and there) which I’m really excited to share here, all filed under the category of follow the fibre.

(Photos show the different stages of the making of my Breed Swatch Along yarn, using fleece we gathered from a local farmer.)

Annabel babe cardigan

csc_0298Autumn will soon be giving way to winter and all around me dear women in my life are entering or on the cusp of entering a new season in their lives, that of motherhood. One of my oldest childhood friends has just become a maman here in France, and there is also a dear friend expecting her second child and a special cousin expecting her first. All in all, it’s the perfect excuse to dive deep into my stash & get stuck into some baby knitting.

Perhaps once I’ve made it to the end of the list of things I want to knit for these new little people, I’ll have made a significant dent in some of the yarns I’ve accumulated since I was pregnant and never got round to using for our own dear baby boy? I’m also anticipating it as the perfect opportunity to discover some lovely new knits for littles.

I’ve started off the proceedings with this gorgeous garter stitch cardigan designed by Carrie Hoge. It’s a pattern I’ve only very recently discovered and I so wish I had known about it when I was expecting. Garter stitch has rapidly become one of my favourite stitches for baby knits, as much for the cozy fabric it produces as for the practicality, I find it so much easier than stocking stitch to manoeuvre on to tiny limbs!

I started by knitting it up in a Burgundy cotton, something from my deep, deep stash…before realising 3/4 in that I didn’t have enough yarn to make it to the end. So I ripped it back and made it instead from this nautical navy blue cotton/linen/tencel blend. Just perfect for my friend’s little boy, as she met her Mauritian husband whilst they were both working below stairs on an ocean liner. Keeping with the nautical theme, I’m making a little fish mobile to hang in little baby E’s nursery with the leftovers from this and another project.

Annabelle Babe Cardigan // pattern // my project

Fish on the line Mobile // pattern // my project

shearing day

shearing dayshearing dayIt’s a chilly Autumn morning, at the start of October last year. We’re stood shivering in the yard of a local mountain barn, wellies on our feet, scarves wrapped round our necks, the baby bundled up beneath layers of cardigans nestled on my chest. The farmer and his helpers have been up to their elbows in sheep and wool since first thing. The yard smells of machine oil, manure and sweat. The trimmers buzz, the sheep bleet loudly as they scrabble around on the cobblestones and the workers say very little. The air is thick with dust and fibres, and as a light drizzle starts to fall, I wonder if it really was a good idea for us to bring the baby up to this barn this morning. But he is unperturbed by all the excitement and sleeping soundly in the scarf, no doubt lulled off to sleep by the whirring of the shears and the shouting of the men as they wrangle each ewe from the barn and across to where the shearer is working furiously.

” Numero 50017. 50176. 10237, laisse le cou.”

“ Numbers 50017. 50176. 10237, leave her neck.”

It takes less than two minutes for the shearer to undress each sheep. The farmer and two of his helpers gather up fleeces as they fall from the animal to the ground. After a few minutes, the farmer approaches me, with what looks like a cloud in his arms. All be it, a very grimy cloud, covered in bits of straw and dung. He gestures to me to touch and I reach out across the gate. The wool is still warm from the sheep. Running my fingers through the locks, I imagine this must be what it feels like to pluck just-laid eggs from a hen’s nest. Oddly intimate. A few seconds ago this fleece was part of a living animal, protecting it from the elements all year long.

For this sheep farmer, who raises his flock not for the spinning mill but rather the slaughter house, shearing day is the end of the production line (for the wool) and just another necessary aspect (and expense) to his farming year Now the wool has been removed from the sheep, it’s status as a protective covering for an agricultural product (sheep) has been reduced, to that of a category 3 animal by-product. Current EU legislation sees no difference between the sack of warm fleeces in the farm yard and catering waste, slaughter house waste & “former food”. Meaning it’s value as a precious, renewable and sustainable agricultural resource has depreciated to that of an item of (at worst) hazardous agricultural waste or (at best) an animal by-product. At least the wool from this clip, destined to be turned into thick woollen blankets by the local blanket makers, is still considered valuable enough to just about pay for the expense of the shearer. But sadly it is not the case for many farmers and their fleeces here in France, in my native Britain, indeed all across the EU. Often just the cost of transport versus what a farmer is paid for raw fleece often makes it economically invalid to send wool to be spun in mills. Which for a local wool enthusiast like me seems like a very sorry state of affairs.

By half past ten, the men are halfway through the flock and they pause briefly to drink a slurp of coffee, brought out on a tray by the farmer’s wife. If she is nonplussed to find an British girl in waterproofs stood somewhat awkwardly in a corner of the farm yard, she is surprised to discover I have a three month old baby snuggled up on my chest. Before we are allowed to leave, she ushers us in to the cosy warmth of the adjoining barn, where a fire is burning merrily in the grate and a big pot of garbure (the local hearty mutton stew) has been slowly bubbling since first light. The shearing will soon be over, but the day is not yet finished. The men (and lone lady shearer…) will soon be joined by various wives and family members to sit down and enjoy a hearty lunch by the fire as the freshly shorn sheep are left shivering out in the drizzle. Twice we are invited to stay and join them at their table. As tempting as it is, the babe is starting to stir and we’d rather get back down to the valley. We don’t leave empty handed however. As we prepare to leave, the farmer hands me three bags full of lovely greasy fleeces (2 white fleeces & 2 black) to take with me back down the mountain.

November, in wool

wovemberWALcsc_0319Outside the home, the November mornings have been adrift with fog in pockets of the valley. There was the first snowfalls of this autumn, which have had us reaching for the woolly clothes during the day and the woolly blankets at night.

Inside, things have been rather busy in our little family, leaving little time for the more energetic or involved woolly pursuits (fibre preparation, spinning, natural dyeing…) once the sun has gone down.

I have however managed to find some little pockets of time in between for some Wovembering – reading, researching, sharing and plenty of reflecting. This month dedicated to wool has given me much to think about in terms of both my own crafting practices and some of the wider woolly questions of the industry here in France and also across Europe. I am excited at the prospect of slowly working through some the strands in the coming months and sharing them here, when time and energy allow.

I have also managed a little knitting in the evenings. I cast off a second Quynn hat for our little man just in time for the first snows. I have also been working on my WovemberWAL project (I am on the verge of casting off as I write) as well as a series of little woollen love hearts improvised from some hand spun scraps. I’m thinking of scribbling down the pattern, let me know if you’d be interested?

What have you been doing with wool this past month?

fleece

Raw fleece

For the past two years, corners of our house have been filled with bags of greasy, dirty, lanolin covered fleeces, gathered directly from local farms at shearing time. Little by little, I have been working my way through them, learning as I go about skirting & sorting but also experimenting with a variety of scouring processes. Every stage is an opportunity to learn something new, even when I get things ‘wrong’. And therefore further expand my knowledge of these rawest of materials. This knowledge guides my feet & fingers when sat at the wheel making yarn, but also when I am preparing for a knitting or crochet project.  There seem to be as many variations within individual fleeces as there are between the different breeds of sheep who have kindly gifted me their woolly coats. I know I am still far from unravelling all the mysteries of wool & fleece!

sheep

baregeoise-1

It might already be apparent to those of you reading here or elsewhere that I love wool. I’m fascinated by everything that the world of wool has to offer us and it seems that I have, quite unintentionally, made it one of my life goals to surround myself with all things wool related. Wool, as my beloved dictionary tells me is the “outer coat that grows on sheep” that is “used to make things such as clothes, blankets and carpets“. It seems so simple and obvious. And yet.

I have a confession to make.  

I grew up in the West Country, in the beautiful county of Dorset. An area, like much of Britain, whose countryside is quintessential sheep rearing country.   And yet it wasn’t until recently, very recently, that I started paying attention to sheep. Really paying attention.

Like most people, I could recognise a sheep when I saw one. They have woolly coats, live in fields, eat grass and have lambs in spring. But those basic things apart, sheep were only sheep. I would not have been able to name the specific breed. Or what part of the world it belonged to. Or known what it was doing in that particular field or why it was there.

It was only in 2014 when I first started seriously becoming interested in where my yarn came from that I began to realise that not all sheep are the same. That there are different breeds which have been developed over time to become adapted to the land they live on. And that these adaptations make for an infinite number of possibilities, in terms of shape and size and character of the animal. And therefore also in the fleece.

Quite soon after taking up the wheel and spindle in spring 2014, I realised that these new activities had opened up a new source of joy for me. Living in a sheep rearing valley in the French Pyrénées, it was possible to spin yarn from sheep I’ve met. Or as Annie Claire has so beautifully put it, “to tighten the gap between pasture and pullover”, as it were.

From the moment I was invited to select my first fleeces from a friend’s farm, I felt a deep rooted satisfaction when I held my first finished skeins in my hands. Knowing that I’d worked with it from raw, stinky fleece through to final, washed and blocked yarn. Even if it was a bit lumpy and bumpy.

So far, all of the raw fleeces I’ve worked with have come from sheep that were born and raised in the valley where I live. Some from the local rare breed the Barégeoise, (see the photo above). Other fleeces came from other traditional (French) South West stock. Beginner that I was, very early on into my experiments I nonetheless started noticing differences in the way the fleeces responded to the various stages involved in spinning yarn: scouring, carding, spinning, plying and blocking. It quickly became apparent that if I were to do justice to the fleeces, it was important to become familiar not only with the various characteristics of the breeds but also the history and fibre traditions associated with each.

Perhaps one day, we’ll have a  patch of land. Where we’ll live in a tiny round house made of fleece and spend our days getting grubby. Him tending to a little permaculture veggie plot, me looking after a little dye garden and our own (tiny) flock of sheep. Then I’ll not only be able to meet the sheep whose fleeces I work with, but I’ll know them intimately.

Until then, I can enjoy the wondrous fibres by working directly with fleeces and yarns that have been grown elsewhere and cared for by other hands. And so in keeping with my personal slow wool project, I’ve decided to start sharing some of my sheepy discoveries and experiments with breed specific fleeces and yarns from here in France, my native Britain and perhaps, occasionally, a little further afield.